Drama is an interesting topic. Sometimes it’s desired and needed, while other times it is the last thing you want. If you’ve raised teenagers, like I have, you hope to never experience any more drama for the rest of your life. In movies, that line is even finer. There are some dramas that draw you in to the storyline without you even realizing it. Then there are those that had the potential to be good, but the movie was ruined by over-dramatization.
The world of sports is no different. Last Saturday night was pure drama as we watched the Chicago Cubs clinch their first World Series appearance since 1945. I’m a Cubs fan. I’m not a die-hard like many of those that grew up in Indianapolis, but I developed my appreciation for them while in college in the late seventies. When I should have been in class on a sunny spring day, I was instead watching the Cubs on WGN in the afternoons – normally with an adult beverage or two. So while I may not be considered a die-hard, I don’t consider myself as one that just hopped on the Cubs bandwagon last week. Last night’s 6-0 loss to Cleveland will not sit well with those that did just jump on the bandwagon. Many of them probably won’t watch tonight.
Watching the Cubs secure their spot in the World Series on Saturday night was pure drama. It needed no hype. When the final double-play was done, FOX announcer Joe Buck was wise to stay quiet and let the pictures of the celebration do the talking. Seeing the joy of the long-suffering Cubs fans in the stands was a moment in sports that I’ll always remember.
Other sporting events are overhyped and contain manufactured drama. A good example of this are the NFL Thursday Night games. Tomorrow night’s matchup is typical of what the games offer. The lowly Titans (3-4) hosting the even more lowly Jaguars (2-4). These games usually feature at least one bottom-dweller each week. The games have gotten so bad that last year, the NFL introduced garish uniforms from each team under the moniker of “Color Rush”.
Last year’s version of this game featured a mostly all-baby blue look for the Titans and an all-baby poop look for the Jags.
Probably the biggest drama for tomorrow night’s game will be to see if both teams repeat this horrid look from last year.
Where am I going with all of this? The drama of this past IndyCar season, that’s where.
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series finale was seriously lacking in drama. While I honestly thought Will Power had a strong shot to steal the title away from Simon Pagenaud, most others did not. Many thought the results were a foregone conclusion before the race even ran. Pagenaud running away with the pole only increased that perception. When Power had a hiccup early in the race, all Pagenaud really had to do was go through the motions. To his credit, he also won the race handily – cementing the legitimacy of his championship.
But let’s be honest – there was no drama to speak of that weekend. Give NBCSN all the credit in the world for trying to keep viewers interested, but the drama was minimal.
On the race track, that’s a bad thing when you are trying to increase ratings and nab new fans. Drama is what makes viewers tune in. We want to see a championship settled on the last turn of the last lap of the season.
The 2011 Indianapolis 500 is the perfect example of a dramatic ending, although it came at the expense of JR Hildebrand. If you’ll recall, Hildebrand was stretching his fuel much like Alexander Rossi did this year. When Bertrand Baguette pitted with three laps to go, it appeared that all Hildebrand had to do was navigate the next twelve turns and the rookie would win, regardless of the fact that Dan Wheldon was charging quickly with plenty of fuel. But entering the final corner of the last lap, Hildebrand came upon a very slow Charlie Kimball and had to go wide. He misjudged the corner and slammed alongside the Turn Four wall, as Wheldon soared past on his way to winning his second “500”. Now, that’s pure drama – the elation of one driver compared to the devastation of another.
In past years, IndyCar drama has taken place away from the track. I hesitate to even mention “The Split” of 1996, but if you’re talking drama – it can’t go without mention. CART’s drama always included whoever happened to be the sitting commissioner, because you always knew they were a dead man walking. Bill Stokkan, Andrew Craig, Joe Heitzler or Chris Pook always had boardroom drama overshadowing their respective tenures. After the two series reunified; Tony George, Jeff Belskus and Randy Bernard all felt the sting of drama in their administrations.
Current IndyCar CEO Mark Miles has come under criticism here on this site as well as others due to his bunker mentality and the perception that he does not listen to fans. But one thing I’ve noticed during the tenure of Mark Miles – there is peace within the paddock.
Randy Bernard had an outright revolt within the paddock for possibly listening to the fans too much. Against the wishes of the teams and drivers, he instituted double-file restarts at all tracks including Indianapolis. While fans liked the excitement they brought, the teams hated them because they had to rebuild a lot of wadded up cars. The drivers were against them because they felt they were being put unnecessarily in harm’s way, just for some manufactured drama. But the Lotus engine debacle at the 2012 Indianapolis 500 that essentially guaranteed that the two Lotus cars would make the field, proved to be Bernard’s ultimate undoing. John Barnes tried multiple times to get Randy fired that summer and eventually succeeded in late October of that year.
Jeff Belskus was not in charge of the series long enough to endure real drama. He just had to deal with the day-to-day uncertainty of running the series immediately after Tony George was fired.
Now the Tony George firing was real drama. George started the Indy Racing League that began running opposite of CART in 1996. He poured millions of his family’s money into the series to keep it afloat as it battled CART/Champ Car for open-wheel supremacy. While he eventually won the war, he still had to dig deep into the family coffers to sustain it. Eventually his sisters grew tired of watching their inheritance dwindle, so they banded together and ousted him. Although we are more than seven years removed from his removal as the head of the series he started, I can’t help but wonder what family get-togethers are like within the Hulman-George family.
For the most part, I still haven’t warmed up to Mark Miles. He comes across as arrogant and aloof and seems to enjoy his power. I feel like he doesn’t listen to what fans want and is not visible enough.
But you can’t argue with his results. Landing Verizon as a title sponsor just months after IZOD bolted a year early was a coup. He has also listened to someone and stabilized the schedule with date equity for the first time in ages. TV Ratings are up in an era where ratings are dropping across the board. Most importantly, he has made some very good hires. I think Jay Frye is the best hire I’ve seen in CART/IndyCar combined. He has become more of the front man for the series, and that’s a good thing. He has a much more charismatic presence than Miles and comes across as the man in charge.
Frye also heads up a revamped Race Control, which avoided much of the controversy that has plagued them in previous years. After the blend line controversy at Long Beach, there was never anything that completely overshadowed a race result. If I’m wrong on that, please point it out.
Even the aero kit decision to go to a common body in 2018 seems to be well-received, for the most part. Now that news has leaked out that the air box over the driver will be replaced by a sleek cowling, no one really seems to be wanting to engineer a coup behind the scenes about aero kits or anything else. Life seems good in the IndyCar paddock for now.
While this past IndyCar season lacked a great deal of drama on the track at the end, it is a welcomed change to have harmony in the paddock for once. In racing, it’s best to leave the drama on the track and out of the boardroom. Lacking drama is not always a bad thing.